Main­stream prefers com­mon sense to flim-flam from elites

Mal­colm Turn­bull can’t go wrong if he sticks to poli­cies based on fact

The Weekend Australian - - INQUIRER - CHRIS KENNY

For all the mil­lions of con­ver­sa­tions and com­mu­ni­ca­tions hap­pen­ing ev­ery minute of ev­ery day, there are two dis­tinct na­tional con­ver­sa­tions oc­cur­ring. They are to­tally di­ver­gent in source and sub­stance and both lay claim to truth. Yet only one can be true; only one can be rooted in re­al­ity.

They are op­po­sites — like Se­in­feld’s Bizarro Jerry. On Syd­ney ra­dio 2GB this week, host Mark Levy was com­ment­ing on the hype about Oprah Win­frey run­ning for pres­i­dent. “De­spite all the doom and gloom around the Trump pres­i­dency, what’s he done wrong so far?” asked Levy. It was an un­re­mark­able re­flec­tion that gen­er­ated no con­tention and was not in­tended to do so. For that au­di­ence it was a state­ment of the ob­vi­ous.

Yet could you imag­ine such an ob­ser­va­tion be­ing made on the ABC? Not only is it in­con­ceiv­able that any ABC host would make such a call but we know any guest ar­gu­ing the same would be treated as a heretic. The propo­si­tion would be howled down as con­tro­ver­sial, par­ti­san and ab­surd. De­spite its char­ter obli­ga­tions to ob­jec­tiv­ity and plurality, the ABC could not en­ter­tain such a rea­son­able point of view.

On the day of the US elec­tion, one of the ABC’s leading po­lit­i­cal an­a­lysts, former La­bor staffer Bar­rie Cas­sidy, tweeted the “night­mare” was over and Don­ald Trump couldn’t win. He then echoed CNN’s take that Trump’s elec­tion would trig­ger the big­gest stock­mar­ket crash since 9/11. As we know, not only did Trump win but the mar­kets are break­ing records — on the up­side.

Over the past few weeks I have been host­ing ra­dio on 2GB and 4BC across NSW and Queens­land, speak­ing with up to 70 callers a day and re­ceiv­ing as many email com­ments on is­sues as di­verse as the pro­posed sugar tax, African youth gangs, im­mi­grant in­te­gra­tion, ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy, en­ergy costs, cli­mate change and sex­ual ha­rass­ment. Across the field the per­spec­tive of the au­di­ence would be as di­ver­gent from the ABC view on these is­sues as the Trump ex­am­ple.

Callers are con­cerned about im­mi­gra­tion and poor in­te­gra­tion, scep­ti­cal about gov­ern­ment in­ter­ven­tions, op­posed to new taxes, wor­ried about en­ergy prices and phleg­matic about alarmist claims on the cli­mate. They are pro­fes­sion­als, pub­lic ser­vants, re­tirees, trades­peo­ple and teach­ers with dif­fer­ing ex­pe­ri­ences and ob­ser­va­tions to share. But few, if any, of their views are the sort you could ever ex­pect to hear on ABC, SBS or other “love me­dia” sta­ples.

This is an ex­tra­or­di­nary di­vide. Where the pub­lic broad­cast­ers, aca­demics and po­lit­i­cal/me­dia class see “ex­treme events” and dan­ger­ous “cli­mate dis­rup­tion”, the main­stream see weather and crip­pling elec­tric­ity prices. Where the main­stream sees ob­vi­ous African gang-re­lated crime and wor­ries about failed in­te­gra­tion of South Su­danese refugees, the so-called elites and even leading Vic­to­rian po­lice see only “net­worked youth of­fend­ers” and stan­dard delin­quency.

Where one nar­ra­tive sees in­ter­fer­ing politi­cians, over­bear­ing gov­ern­ment and bur­den­some tax­a­tion, the other sees the need for ex­tra levies to force us to limit our sugar or al­co­hol in­take. One nar­ra­tive watches the Golden Globes and sees sanc­ti­mony, hypocrisy and trial by me­dia while the other sees Hol­ly­wood tak­ing a brave stand.

Per­haps no dis­cus­sion bet­ter demon­strates this di­vide than the re­sponse to an ar­ti­cle pub­lished in The Syd­ney Morn­ing Her­ald last week about vol­un­teer­ing. It was based on a speech by Catherine Walsh, billed as a writer and teacher, who ar­gued that vol­un­teer­ing

Few, if any, of their views are the sort you could ever ex­pect to hear on ABC, SBS or other ‘love me­dia’ sta­ples

was coun­ter­pro­duc­tive, un­der­cut paid work and re­lieved gov­ern­ments of their re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

Walsh urged us to “stop vol­un­teer­ing” and to cam­paign for laws to “aban­don” fundrais­ing, vol­un­teers and char­i­ties so that fu­ture gen­er­a­tions could be re­lieved of the “ex­pec­ta­tion” to sup­port these “in­ef­fi­cient” sys­tems. I don’t know what was more as­ton­ish­ing, that an adult would say or write such a thing or that a me­dia or­gan­i­sa­tion would pub­lish it un­crit­i­cally.

When I read ex­cerpts on ra­dio the re­ac­tion was un­der­stand­able. Peo­ple from all walks of life who were vol­un­teers or had ben­e­fited from their gen­eros­ity called to voice their dis­may. State emer­gency ser­vice work­ers, fire fight­ers, li­brary vol­un­teers, art gallery guides, Meals on Wheels work­ers, St Vin­cent de Paul helpers — the list was end­less. They were as­ton­ished at the lack of grat­i­tude, and the stu­pid­ity.

How could this coun­try func­tion without ru­ral fire vol­un­teers, Coun­try Women’s As­so­ci­a­tion branches or surf life­savers? Con­versely, how could we ever amass enough tax to run such vi­tal com­mu­nity or­gan­i­sa­tions as paid pro­fes­sional out­fits? It is as in­sult­ing as it is ab­surd.

Yet it per­fectly en­cap­su­lates the schism. Only some­one deeply em­bed­ded in the pub­licly funded po­lit­i­cal/me­dia class — that ar­ti­fi­cially cre­ated re­al­ity — could en­ter­tain or share such thoughts. The only vol­un­teers Walsh ad­mired were ac­tivists protest­ing to change laws and poli­cies. This truly is bizarro world. Walsh lauded the at­ten­tion-seek­ers and trou­ble­mak­ers while she dissed the peo­ple who qui­etly im­prove the daily lives of fel­low cit­i­zens.

It is not hard to see which view is right. And it is not a mat­ter of opin­ion. The facts sup­port the case for vol­un­teers. Whether you as­sess the qual­ity of their out­comes — tan­gi­ble and in­tan­gi­ble — or the cost of re­plac­ing their ser­vices with paid em­ploy­ees, you can see the in­es­timable value of their con­tri­bu­tion to the nation. We know the over­whelm­ing sway of pub­lic opin­ion would sup­port the vol­un­teers. It is a no-brainer.

This is the clue for our politi­cians, es­pe­cially on the right-of­cen­tre. If they don’t have the in­stincts to know which nar­ra­tive should guide them on any is­sue — if they are lured off course by the false nar­ra­tive of the so-called elites — they just need to con­cen­trate on the facts. Go with the ar­gu­ment that is right. Go with the prac­ti­cal ap­proach — this is the essence of con­ser­vatism.

Mal­colm Turn­bull has had dif­fi­culty do­ing this. His in­stinct is to ac­cept the plau­dits of the po­lit­i­cal/ me­dia class and run from the frank­ness, or even coarse­ness, of the mat­ter-of-fact main­stream ap­proach. Oc­ca­sion­ally he shows en­cour­ag­ing signs. He has been forth­right on the African gang prob­lem. Strength is re­quired, be­cause to be frank on these is­sues is to in­vite vile abuse.

Turn­bull’s one hope to ex­tend his prime min­is­ter­ship is to strongly iden­tify with the main­stream nar­ra­tive on core is­sues and, more im­por­tantly, pro­vide tan­gi­ble proof that he un­der­stands the ar­gu­ments by de­liv­er­ing action. En­ergy pol­icy pro­vides the great­est op­por­tu­nity but his com­pli­cated Na­tional En­ergy Guar­an­tee is in­suf­fi­ciently di­ver­gent from ex­ist­ing or La­bor pol­icy to cre­ate a sharp con­test. He could end up with en­dorse­ment from La­bor states, leading to a mod­er­ately im­proved sys­tem com­pared with the present mess but with the is­sue po­lit­i­cally neutered.

The Prime Min­is­ter’s en­ergy pol­icy is still be­holden to fu­tile Paris tar­gets, de­spite the US with- draw­ing and the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity ask­ing next to noth­ing of China or In­dia. While he backs Paris at the ex­pense of af­ford­able and re­li­able en­ergy, he fails to give the main­stream what they re­ally need and want — the cheap­est and most re­li­able elec­tric­ity.

Our com­pet­ing nar­ra­tives can broadly be de­scribed as left and right. But we can imag­ine a se­ries of Venn di­a­grams where the flanks of the ma­jor par­ties over­lap to share and swap mem­bers on var­i­ous is­sues. Even busi­ness lead­ers fuel the left side of some de­bates be­cause of cor­po­rate pos­tur­ing, din­ner-party im­per­a­tives or fear of so­cial-me­dia-driven rep­u­ta­tional dam­age.

Turn­bull and the Coali­tion need to have faith that the num­bers are with the main­stream and com­mon sense. Sure, the left nar­ra­tive — with its aca­demic and po­lit­i­cal/me­dia class sup­port — makes most of the noise and gen­er­ates its own mo­men­tum. But Brexit, Trump and even Tony Abbott circa 2013 demon­strate that vot­ers can flock to main­stream can­di­dates no mat­ter the hec­tor­ing and prog­nos­ti­ca­tions of the so-called elites. John Howard could never have won a sin­gle elec­tion un­less this were true.

This re­quires strong ad­vo­cacy from con­vic­tion politi­cians to give main­stream vot­ers a guid­ing light through the de­cep­tions of the po­lit­i­cal/me­dia class. It de­mands lead­er­ship, not opin­ion poll watch­ing.

Yet this is not a mat­ter of the­o­ries, ide­ol­ogy or com­plex plans. Rather, it is about the facts.

In the is­sues men­tioned ear­lier the facts sup­port the main­stream view. Ev­ery weather event we are see­ing has been seen be­fore — from thou­sands of bats dy­ing in Syd­ney heat­waves as they were ob­served do­ing back in 1792 to a freez­ing arc­tic win­ter in North Amer­ica. Those seek­ing to talk up daily events to suit a nar­ra­tive are con­stantly caught out — the Bureau of Me­te­o­rol­ogy’s ho­mogeni­sa­tion fid­dles are still largely un­ex­plained and last week­end it claimed an all-time max­i­mum for the Syd­ney re­gion be­fore hav­ing to cor­rect the record with a hot­ter day in 1939 (ho­mogenised or not).

And facts tell us Aus­tralia’s en­ergy poli­cies can­not have a dis­cernible ef­fect on the global en­vi­ron­ment but can make us eco­nom­i­cally un­com­pet­i­tive. Facts tell us poor or el­derly Aus­tralians are more likely to die of heat stress or cold ex­po­sure if they can­not af­ford to use their heat­ing or cool­ing. Main­stream vot­ers are right to de­mand politi­cians fo­cus on what they can change rather than on what they pre­tend to be able to in­flu­ence — they don’t buy the ges­ture pol­i­tics.

If not for the pub­licly funded ABC, SBS, sub­sidised mag­a­zines, uni­ver­si­ties and bu­reau­cratic in­ter­ven­tions, the false nar­ra­tives of the virtue-sig­nallers would be soundly de­feated in the open mar­ket­place of ideas. In­stead, their non­sense dom­i­nates.

For much of last year jour­nal­ists and com­men­ta­tors on the ABC spoke of a “reck­less” Trump in­creas­ing the risk of “ther­monu­clear war” be­cause of his sabr­erat­tling over North Korea. Ra­dio Na­tional this week in­ter­viewed Christo­pher Hill, the US diplo­mat who led the six-party talks and other ef­forts un­der Ge­orge W. Bush and Barack Obama to end North Korea’s weapons pro­grams. Host Hamish Mac­don­ald and Hill joked and mocked Trump’s ef­forts at diplo­macy. Yet it was Hill and the West who had been played for fools by North Korea, leav­ing the world with this nu­clear-armed legacy, and it is Trump who has de­liv­ered stronger sanc­tions from the UN, US and China.

With the small but wel­come de­vel­op­ment this week of the North and South hold­ing talks, the ABC dropped its theme of Trump as the dom­i­nant and ham- fisted player and bus­ied it­self ex­plain­ing why he could not claim credit for what had tran­spired. One mo­ment its nar­ra­tive had Trump bring­ing us to the brink of war (when things looked omi­nous) and the next we had the bel­li­cose diplo­macy of the world’s most pow­er­ful leader be­ing ir­rel­e­vant (when there were promis­ing signs). This de­cep­tion might pass muster on Q&A but it does not pass the pub test.

The na­tional broad­caster quotes Al Jazeera, Buz­zfeed and CNN to mock and sneer at Trump and the daily con­fected scan­dals but seems to have missed the im­port of what is hap­pen­ing with Amer­i­can tax­a­tion re­forms, the global econ­omy and other de­vel­op­ments in in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions. If this is how jaun­diced and in­ac­cu­rate it can be on is­sues where we can all see the facts, imag­ine what it might be get­ting away with on ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy, health­care is­sues, bor­der pro­tec­tion con­tro­ver­sies and the cli­mate and en­ergy de­bate.

Turn­bull must be wary of the false nar­ra­tives, es­chew pos­tur­ing, fol­low facts over ide­ol­ogy and con­nect with main­stream views. If he doesn’t, we will see an­other bizarro ad­min­is­tra­tion and the main­stream will wait longer for a more mo­men­tous reck­on­ing.

How could this coun­try func­tion without ru­ral fire vol­un­teers, the Coun­try Women’s As­so­ci­a­tion or surf life­savers?


Mal­colm Turn­bull, seen here at the SCG for the fifth Ashes Test on Jan­uary 6, needs to di­vert his po­lit­i­cal course to­wards main­stream opin­ions

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